Short Thought on Sport: Asbel Kiprop’s “positive test” and a chance for the biological passport to shine (or not)

11 Apr 2019 Posted by

I’m back with a short thought on sport! Turns out these haven’t always been short enough to allow me to do them as often as I’d have liked, apologies. But let’s see how this one goes!

So Asbel Kiprop is due to hear his fate any day now. On March 23rd, I read an article on his pending doping case, and it said that the decision was delayed by three weeks – that would be April 13, so I am expecting (naively, probably) some kind of decision any day, hence the timing of this Short Thought.

Going back even further, for those not in the know – Kiprop was one of the great 1500m runners of the last decade. Olympic Champion in 2008, three World Championship golds from 2011 to 2015, and a 3:26.99 which was the fastest time in fifteen years and made him the third fastest man in history for the distance.

He also possessed a body type that made people watch him run. A human stretching rack cautionary tale, he looked like what would happen if a biomechanist, an engineer, a physiologist and an architect got together to design a runner, with impossibly long, skinny legs, tendons that seemed to stretch for miles, and a “linearity” (which has been offered as a key factor driving Kenyan distance running dominance) that could not be more extreme.

And so, when in May last year it was reported that Kiprop had failed a test for EPO in a sample that had been taken in the November 2017. Many people said “No way, surely not him. There can be no hope for sport if he is doping too”.

Others said, “Ah, I thought that might be the case, I’m just shocked he got caught. I wonder who messed up?”.

And so here we are. Two camps, one athlete, one positive test, and zero clear meanings. Kiprop has thrown the kitchen sink of corruption at the authorities, and that will be what the case has to sort through in order to either clear him or ban him.


Positive isn’t doping, negative definitely isn’t clean

Because here’s the thing – doping and anti-doping have become so convoluted and untrustworthy from both sides that a negative test doesn’t mean a clean athlete, and a positive test doesn’t always mean a doped athlete.

One of the key premises of the anti-doping system is that it provides a reliable assessment of whether an athlete can or can’t be trusted. That is to say, it must be

  • Sensitive – picks up the dopers without missing any (true positives, and no false negatives, in other words)
  • Specific – doesn’t pick up the clean athletes by accident (true negatives, and no false positives)

The problem, and my perception is that this is more of an issue now than ever (although I think I’m also jaded at the constant cycle of doper caught – denial – allegation – counter-allegation – legal argument – absolution/ban), is that an athlete who is caught, like Kiprop, can now attack the system and the tests so aggressively that it turns True Positives into False Positives, and nobody can trust anything moving forward. The cases where the premise of “If we catch you, you are guilty” seems true most often is when the fish is small enough to not fight back (typical of all legal systems, I suspect).

To illustrate – next time an athlete fails a test for Salbutamol, hands up if you’ll trust the test and the authorities who ban or clear the athlete? No of course not, thanks to dog simulations and mighty lawyers.

And this doesn’t even deal with all the false negatives, where athletes can dope for 90% of the year, and never be caught because they’re sophisticated enough. “Creative corruption” is the word I used on a podcast the other day – all you have to be is creative, and you can slip through a net that is rather too full of holes.


Kiprop’s case and the kitchen sink of corruption

Anyway, I digress, back to Kiprop. So I read this article, which described an 11-point rebuttal of the positive test that Kiprop will be using to resurrect his stalled track career.

The rebuttal is primarily focused on the actions of the doping control officers, and seeks to undermine the test from a procedural point of view. For instance, we have the following:

The drug control officers tampered with the sample

The drug control officers demanded money from him at the time of sample collection (back in November last year)

The drug officers failed to fill the paperwork out correctly, including failing to declare that that sample collection vessel was clean and uncontaminated

The sample was initially sent to the wrong address, and only made its way to the lab for testing later

Now, I have no idea whether any of that is true. These are human beings, so of course it is possible. I hope that the authorities who managed the collection have watertight and convincing rebuttals of all those claims.

What I find more interesting, though, are the set of claims Kiprop is making about the concept of himself doping, and the tacit acknowledgment that the test is reliable. For instance, consider the following arguments he made three weeks ago in London:

Kigen (Kiprop’s lawyer) told the Tribunal that EPO stays in the blood for maximum three months, hence it could not help in respect to Kiprop’s competition which was seven months away.

This is a really interesting one – the notion that an athlete can say “Why would I be doping when I’m not in competition” seems pretty old school thinking to me, in a couple of ways. First, the benefit of EPO is not an acute competitive one, it’s primarily a training one. So the fact that EPO used in November would be gone from the body by January is irrelevant.

In fact, it’s almost the point – the training benefit persists even after the drug is gone. That’s one of the great challenges for authorities.

Secondly, the doping of the present age is micro-dosing which serves a few purposes. It supports training and recovery, particularly when an athlete is at altitude.

It also helps to ensure a smoother biological passport profile, because the biological passport is designed to catch deviations above or below the normal expected physiological range, and so if constant use is possible, then future use becomes more difficult to detect.

Also, I see no reason why an athlete should behave as a rational person in this regard – EPO is not an amphetamine that you take because you need it NOW. It’s a drug that might well be used outside of competition windows, when it’s considerably safer, and may still support training and recovery during base training periods or the transition back into training after an off-season.

So the paradigm is interesting. It assumes that athletes dope only when it is most beneficial for them to do so, because the cost of doping and the risk of doping are both too high to do it more regularly. That is however no longer necessarily true when micro-dosing is in play.

To illustrate, if you can use one-fifth of the normal dose, then you can dope for five times as long as before, and the cost to you will be the same. There’s more good news – if you use one-fifth of the normal dose (or even less), you’re also much less likely to be caught, so both “disincentives” to doping continuously – the risk and the cost – are both negated, provided you continue to dope at small enough levels.

So here again, I don’t know whether Kiprop is telling the truth about not doping, but the premise of that argument – “Why would I dope if I’m not competing?” – is a false one, in my opinion.

Even anti-doping authorities have to escape this paradigm, because part of the way they assess a biological passport case is to ask “Is it reasonable for this athlete to have doped at this period of the year?”. And I think that gives too much credit to the athlete/coach/doctor for being rational in their doping behaviour.


The EPO test – it works, thus my client must be innocent

Related to that, the most interesting counter-point offered by Kiprop is the following:

Kigen maintained that Asbel’s blood samples for November 22, 2017, being five days before he was implicated does not support the alleged existence of EPO neither does blood sample collected two days after, November 29. 

“If my client had doped, these samples of 22nd and 29th would have shown in blood passports,” he said.

When I first read that, I thought “No, no, no, Abel, you’re doing this all wrong. Don’t ever acknowledge that the test actually works. Where are your dogs? Where are your scientists who are testifying that the test is flawed? Where are you thousands of pages of academic research, your computer simulations and your rebuttal of the entire basis for the anti-doping tests?”

Because what Kiprop is saying here is that the EPO test can be trusted enough that an athlete who is using EPO would be detected every time they are tested. And that, I’m afraid, need not be true. If the dosage is small enough, and the circumstances are correct, then an athlete might well be caught only once in a one week window. If micro-dosing is the name of the game (which it is), then it’s not inconceivable that some samples will have so little of the substance that they test negative.

One possible scenario, using the above dates, is that Kiprop uses a very small dose on the 22nd, after he is tested (maybe thinking “That’s testing done for now, so I’m safe). He’s then tested 5 days later on the 27th, and there’s enough in the sample to be detected. He’s then tested 2 further days later on the 29th, by which time there is not.

That’s a not impossible scenario. Is it what happened? Perhaps the authorities have the results from those tests either side, and it will form part of the argument in response to this claim.


Enter the biological passport, “expert witness”

Which brings me to the final course of this “meal”, the biological passport. It appears, based on what Kiprop’s lawyer says above, that he was tested on 22 November, 27 November and 29 November (I’m assuming this is true).

Now, for an athlete to be tested three times within a week, outside of competition, that absolutely screams “target tested”. So the question is, why was Kiprop being target tested?

Was it based on intelligence, tip-offs, knowledge that he may be doping? Or was it based on a biological profile that was so unusual that the authorities suspected doping, but didn’t have enough to proceed with a case, and so instead decided to pursue him intensely with actual testing?

What will be most interesting to me, if this ever comes out, is what the biological passport looked like in the months leading up to the test, and indeed the months after it? If it reveals absolutely no evidence of doping, a biological passport that looks like it comes out of a figure called “Textbook representation of a undoped athlete blood profile”, then Kiprop’s previous arguments, ranging from corruption of officials to the faulty test, gain some momentum.

On the other hand, if his Passport looks like a profile of the French Alps on the Queen stage of the Tour de France, or even just one long climb up Alp d’Huez, going up and up and up at around the same time as the eventual positive test, then the biological passport will have scored a major victory.

Not by catching an athlete, but by marking him for aggressive testing that did. The biological passport is of course never going to be perfect, and a critic might even say “The guy was doping and the passport didn’t catch him”, which is criticism that does have some merit. And I do so wish that it was sensitive enough that it could catch a doper without the subsequent lengthy legal procedures.

However, I am really interested to see if it’s role in the Kiprop case was significant, because if it was, then it’s a small victory for the process.

All of this is conjecture, of course. Kiprop may well be telling the truth about the corruption, and perhaps the legal hearings will establish this. And then anti-doping will have been dealt a(nother) massive blow, because if it’s not the test, then it’s the humans who cannot be trust.

But the collection of all the evidence, biological passport most of all, will be fascinating to see.


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